Indonesia at last

Far from the Starbucks and Christmas music where I wrote my last blog, I’m now sitting on a concrete step in the Jakarta train station, listening to a man babble in yet another language I don’t understand, and trying to ignore the people staring at us from all directions. Welcome to Indonesia.

But first, let me backtrack (I’m way behind again!). We left Kuala Lumpur via public bus and headed 2 hours south to the ancient seaport of Melaka (or Malacca). We only had the afternoon to explore, so once we dropped our bags at the hotel, Kris took us out to explore town. Like I said before, Melaka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its history. The town was populated by the Dutch, Portuguese, and the British, which explains the European architecture and cobblestone streets. After a few hours of walking around, several of us took a boat tour up the narrow river that divided the town in two to see more of the Dutch influence and traditional architecture that has been preserved. Later that night, after an amazing Indian dinner, we took a walk down Jonkers Street, which is an open market that only happens on the weekend and has anything and everything you ever wanted. Apparently there’s a guy who breaks through coconuts with only two fingers, but I only heard his bravado – I didn’t actually see him do anything.

The next day we boarded another public bus and headed south again to the city state of Singapore. I was looking forward to some cleanliness and order after several weeks of chaotic Asian cities. At the border we had to get off the bus and take our bags through security. A sign greeted us saying, “All drug traffickers are sentenced to death.” I knew Singapore was strict, but geez.

Through customs (uneventfully except for a closer look at my bottle of coconut oil), and back on the bus we had another half hour to the hotel. As we got closer to the city center, the streets got cleaner and the buildings nicer. No wonder, because littering is a $1000 dollar fine (about US $750).

We checked into our hotel and then headed out with Kris to see the highlights if the city. Like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore has some amazing architecture. One building was designed to look like a durian, a SE Asian fruit with a spiny peel (the locals say “it smells like hell and tastes like heaven”). We eventually wound our way to the city center where three tall skyscrapers form the pedestals for a massive “ship” that holds a swimming pool, restaurant, the Sky Bar, and hotel. The spectacle overlooks a small lake and on the other side of the lake is the iconic Singapore lion spouting water from his mouth. We also saw the beautiful colonial Raffles Hotel, decked out in Christmas decorations and only costing $500 a night. I really liked Singapore, despite it’s ridiculous fines and outrageous prices. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it was nice to visit.

Singapore was also where Sarah and I said goodbye to Kris and the rest of the group. We were to continue on to Indonesia while everyone else went their separate ways. I can’t say it was terribly sad to say goodbye – I didn’t really connect with anyone since their priorities and interests were quite different from mine.

Kris accompanied us to the airport and after checking in, we had a coffee before boarding the plane. I was a little shocked not to have to go though security after getting our tickets, but when we went to our gate, we had to scan our bags (they took my saline solution and coconut oil 😦 I’m not sure why I thought I could fly with liquids here…)

So now I’m in Indonesia with a new group (who all seem really nice and not partiers!) and a new tour guide, who also seems very cool. We spent one night in Jakarta, which is on the island of Java (famous for it’s coffee!) and even crazier than Bangkok. Sarah and I went out to walk around and were bombarded by Indonesian students who’s holiday homework was to flock around white people and practice their English. Seriously. We did find a nice, old colonial bar and restaurant where we found reprieve in a cup of overly priced tea. Now we’re headed east to Bandung. I know very little about this country, so it should be interesting!

Kuala Lumpur

I’m sitting in a Starbucks in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, listening to Christmas music and drinking coffee, which I’m trying I give up. In about an hour, we move on again, south to Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ancient sea port on the west coast of Malaysia.

The first evening we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia Kris, our guide took us to the Petronas Twin Towers, which were the tallest skyscrapers in the world from 1998 to 2004. Then we walked a sweaty half an hour to the Menara Tower and took the lift to the top for a panoramic view of the city. The sun was just setting, so the light was glinting off the buildings and the horizon was hazy. It was beautiful.

Yesterday we had a full day to explore Kuala Lumpur and we managed to pack in a lot. Sarah, a girl from Germany, and I set out early to first find a post office so she could send a few things home and then to get lost in the maze of busy streets and tall skyscrapers. The majority of the group wanted to spend the day at a water/theme park, but I had no interest whatsoever in doing that. We found the post office and since it was starting to rain, we ducked into Central Market, a shopping complex filled with East Asian souvenirs and crafts. I’m not a big shopper, but there were some beautiful handmade crafts from around Malaysia, like clothes, jewelry, pewter mugs, carvings, and my favorite – a pottery shop that had beautiful tea sets, vases, cups, and jewelry. All too expensive, though, unfortunately. Sarah and I had a delicious Thai lunch in the food court, followed by my favorite dessert – mango sticky rice. I also bought a large bottle of coconut oil, which is good for pretty much everything – lotion, hair conditioner, massage, or taking a tablespoon a day for health, which is what I got it for.

The rain outside had turned to a sprinkle, so we set out again, this time towards Lake Gardens, a park on the outskirts of the city. I’m actually quite amazed at how good my sense of direction is. I’ve never been to this city, but I seemed to know exactly where to go with only a glimpse at a map. I guess once you figure out your way around one city, you can figure out them all. At the entrance to Lake Garden was the National Mosque (Malaysia is a Muslim country) and we were just in time for non-muslim (aka tourists) visiting hours. The catch was that we had to wear long purple robes with hoods over our (too revealing) clothes and no shoes. Inside was interesting. It actually didn’t feel “inside” because everything was open – no walls except in the huge prayer room where we weren’t allowed to go. On the way out I glanced at the visitors book and I was the only American listed that I could see.

Lake Gardens was a nice respite from the traffic and pollution of the city center, and Sarah and I spent a few hours wandering around the orchid and hibiscus gardens. It was still raining slightly, but I didn’t mind because the place was deserted. There was also a bird park nearby, but it was expensive, so instead we were entertained by a troop of monkeys playing and monkeying around on the roof of a snack shop. After lounging for a bit on benches beneath a hibiscus-covered trellis, we headed back down towards town. Once on the streets, it started raining again, so we ducked into the nearest building, which happened to be a textile museum. It was a beautiful old colonial building and the museum had some interesting old clothes and jewelry.

It was around six, but neither of us were hungry, so we decided to head to Little India to look around. We stopped to ask for directions and the man said he was headed that way, so we followed him. He even stopped and waited while we took pictures. Little India wasn’t very India-like – just a lot of crowded tents selling everything imaginable – so we retraced our steps and went to Chinatown, which wasn’t much better. Now hungry, we headed back towards our hotel and the Indian restaurant across the street where I’ve eaten at for almost every meal. You’d think I would be getting sick of Indian food… But I’m not.

In The Mountains of Malaysia

Wow, I have some catching up to do. It’s only been a few days since I was “island hopping”, but it feels like ages ago and I’ve done and seen so much. After we left Krabi, we took a full day bus ride (private mini-van) to the Thai/Malaysia border and crossed into new territory. I’d never been to Malaysia before, so it was exciting. The landscape is similar to Thailand (at least in the north), but Malaysia is a wealthier country, so the roads were better and everything felt and looked more modern. We arrived in Georgetown, Penang, where we would be spending the next two nights and after getting settled into our rooms (at the Minimal Good Hotel – which was actually quite nice) we headed out for some street food. Penang is an island off the west coast of northern Malaysia and it’s well-known for its delicious street food. I had a vegetable soup and it was quite good.

The next day we had free to explore, so Jo (a girl from England) and I hopped on a bus and headed out of town to see the Kek Lok Si Temple. It was enormous and rather touristy, but still impressive. We didn’t have too much time to walk around because we were supposed to meet the rest of the group at noon for a walking tour of the city, led by our tour guide Kris. Asia isn’t known for it’s timely public transpiration and we got back just in time to meet the group heading down the street. Kris took us around the Colonial part of Georgetown and told us some of it’s history, but after about an hour the rest of the group was getting hot and tired and bored. So they took a bus back and Kris, Jo, Sarah, and I continued on to Little India and Chinatown.

We all met again at 7 for dinner and headed to an Indian restaurant that I saw in my guidebook. When we got there though, it was all vegetarian! Good for me, but most everyone else picked up and went down the street to another Indian place where they could order meat. I was disappointed to see that they couldn’t eat vegetarian for just one night. Sarah, Jo, and Kris stayed with me, though.

The next day we had another long bus ride into the mountains of Malaysia – the Cameron Highland, known for it’s tea plantations and strawberry farms. As we made our way up several thousand feet (4800 I think) on a winding road, the air got cooler and cooler. It’s actually cold enough to wear jackets, scarves, hats, and Uggs (yes, one girl brought her Uggs to southeast Asia) at night. We arrived late again, so we only had a little time to look around town before dinner. We ate at another Indian restaurant (I have a new obsession with Indian food) and my meal was served on a banana leaf!

Finally (I’m almost caught up), today we went on a full day tour of trekking, tea plantations, a butterfly garden, and strawberry eating. We first stopped at a roadside village where the locals showed us how to use a blow dart gun that their ancestors used to use to hunt. We got to try and I hit the bulls eye dead-on 🙂 After, two local boys who spoke no English led us into the jungle in search of the Raffelsia – the largest flower in the world and it only grown in southeast Asia. We hiked a very sweaty and muddy 45 minutes into the lush rainforest before coming across it. The Raffelsia is a parasitic plant that has no roots, stems, or leaves. Some species can grow over 39 inches and weigh up to 22 pounds! The one we saw was about 2 feet across with red flesh and a lot flies buzzing around (apparently they smell like rotting meat, but I didn’t stick my nose in it). It was pretty cool and looked very out of place in the surrounding greenery.

After hiking back out, we stopped for lunch at a roadside Indian restaurant 🙂 Then we visited a 600 acre tea plantation. It was massive. Everywhere I looked there were tea plants. The plantation (called Boh) was started in the 1920’s by a Scottish family and it’s still run by the same family. They now live in Kuala Lumpur and visit the plantation via helicopter. It was beautiful, though – the steep hills and mountains were all planted with tea plants and the sun was glinting off the leaves. There are only five types of tea – black, green, white, oolong, and flavored – and they’re all made from the same leaf. It just depends on how the leaves are dried, fermented, and processed.

We had a tour around the factory and a cup of tea in the “tea-ria” before moving on to the butterfly gardens. It was actually really cool. Butterflies were everywhere and we could hold them in our hands. They had other critters as well, like snakes (one of which I had draped around my neck), giant beetles, leaf insects, stick insects, chameleons, leaf frogs (they actually look like leaves!), scorpions, etc… All from around Malaysia. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at an open market and bought some strawberries from the surrounding farms. I actually didn’t try any because they were expensive and I’m a little skeptical about the pesticide use…

Tomorrow we move on again. We leave early and head south to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Looking forward to more adventures!